Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday that a $400,000 Department of Education grant would enable all Arkansas middle schools to participate in a project designed to increase student interest in computer- and technology-related careers.
The Learning Blade program uses self-guided game-based projects to expose students to those opportunities in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). Sheila Boyington, co-founder and president of Thinking Media, the company that makes the product, said students participate in missions that solve societal problems, such as the school’s website being hacked. In order to complete the mission, students earn tools and teammates through short academic exercises that introduce them to STEM concepts.
Boyington said millennials are attracted to career paths involving helping people, and they understand societal needs. Learning Blade helps students see how tech careers fit into those qualities.
The grant will be given to the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, which will implement the program at no cost to the schools. Hutchinson said the program will be available to charter schools, private schools and to homeschooled students.
Arkansas will be the second state to use the program in every middle school – Tennessee was the first – and will be the first to include a computer coding element, Hutchinson said. Under Hutchinson, Arkansas became the first state in the country to require computer science to be taught at all public high schools.
“I like small investments with big returns,” Hutchinson said in introducing the grant.
The program was piloted this past year in more than 70 schools involving 5,000 students. Rick Neal, superintendent of the Pea Ridge School District, said 156 students participated in his district.